Godparents and Sponsors
Artwork: Geets, Willem. “Baptism at the Court of Margaret of Austria.” n.d.
Godparents (for the solemn baptism of infants) and sponsors (for the baptism of adults) assist the baptized during their baptism, and support the baptized as needed with their spiritual life. For obvious reasons, godparents or sponsors must be practicing Catholics. Similarly, Catholics are expressly forbidden from acting as godparents to non-Catholics.
These sponsors, in default of the child’s parents, are obliged to instruct it concerning faith and morals. One sponsor is sufficient and not more than two are allowed. In the latter case, one should be male and the other female. The object of these restrictions is the fact that the sponsor contracts a spiritual relationship to the child and its parents which would be an impediment to marriage. Sponsors must themselves be baptized persons having the use of reason and they must have been designated as sponsors by the priest or parents. During the baptism they must physically touch the child either personally or by proxy. They are required, moreover, to have the intention of really assuming the obligations of godparents. It is desirable that they should have been confirmed, but this is not absolutely necessary. Certain persons are prohibited from acting as sponsors. They are: members of religious orders, married persons in respect to each other, or parents to their children, and in general those who are objectionable on such grounds as infidelity, heresy, excommunication, or who are members of condemned secret societies, or public sinners (Sabetti, no. 663). Sponsors are also used in the solemn baptism of adults. They are never necessary in private baptism.1
Below are more resources on the expectations of godparents and sponsors.
The Council of Trent
The faithful are also to be taught the duty of sponsors; for such is the negligence with which this office is treated in the Church that only the bare name of the function remains, while none seem to have the least idea of its sanctity. Let all sponsors, then, at all times recollect that they are strictly bound by this law to exercise a constant vigilance over their spiritual children, and carefully to instruct them in the maxims of a Christian life; so that these may show themselves throughout life to be what their sponsors promised in the solemn ceremony.
On this subject let us hear the words of St. Denis. Speaking in the person of the sponsor he says: I promise, by my constant exhortations to induce this child, when he comes to a knowledge of religion, to renounce every thing opposed (to his Christian calling) and to profess and perform the sacred promises which he now makes.
St. Augustine also says: I most especially admonish you, men and women, who have acquired godchildren through Baptism, to consider that you stood as sureties before God, for those whom you received at the sacred font. Indeed it preeminently becomes every man, who undertakes any office, to be indefatigable in the discharge of its duties; and he who promised to be the teacher and guardian of another should never allow to be deserted him whom he once received under his care and protection as long as he knows the latter to stand in need of either.
Speaking of this same duty of sponsors, St. Augustine sums up in a few words the lessons of instruction which they are bound to impart to their spiritual children. They ought, he says, to admonish them to observe chastity, love justice, cling to charity; and above all they should teach them the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the rudiments of the Christian religion.2
In the case of children, the role of the godparent is to be that of “spiritual guardian” who takes up any “slack” in the child’s catechesis, helps ensure that his godchild learns the Faith, and prays for the godchild throughout his life. St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his Summa Theologica III-67-8:
‘Now it has been stated…that godparents take upon themselves the duties of a tutor. Consequently they are bound to watch over their godchildren when there is need for them to do so: for instance when and where children are brought up among unbelievers. But if they are brought up among Catholic Christians, the godparents may well be excused from this responsibility, since it may be presumed that the children will be carefully instructed by their parents. If, however, they perceive in any way that the contrary is the case, they would be bound, as far as they are able, to see to the spiritual welfare of their godchildren. This is a very solemn obligation, not one to be entered into lightly. Parents should choose their child’s godparents very carefully and select traditional Catholics who know the Faith, understand the obligations of godparenting, and are willing and able to live up to them. Parents and godparents should work together for the goal of helping the child to know, love, and serve God! During the Rite of Baptism, the godparents will answer for the child, that is, they will make the replies to the questions asked by the priest of the one to be baptized.’
Sponsors for adults should express the same type of concern for the newly baptized soul, helping to ease the person into Church life and answer questions that may arise. During the Rite of Baptism, the sponsors for adults stand silent, with a hand on the candidate’s shoulder (and sometimes signing the catechumen with the Cross, in some variations of the Rite); the one to be baptized answers the priest’s questions himself.3
The Catholic Transcript
Third, while the children are growing up, it is important that they come to know you and your family as models of Christian kindness and charity. Your example in living the faith will have more lasting effects upon them than anything you may say. If they learn to love and admire you, they will find it natural to want to imitate your way of life, particularly when they are old enough to think for themselves.4
The Catholic Guide to Expectant Motherhood
Since this Sacrament is necessary for your child to enjoy the gift of the Faith, it is the foremost one he can receive. He cannot receive it unless he renounces the devil and his works, and expresses his determination to follow the teachings of Our Lord and to lead a true Christian life. Since your infant is unable to speak for himself, the godparents have the responsibility of expressing that willingness and determination for him.
In speaking for the child, the godparents also promise in effect to make the child’s spiritual welfare their concern all their life. In a practical sense, they probably will not have to do much in this regard, for your child’s spiritual welfare will be primarily your concern. But if you or your husband should prove unable to care for your child spiritually, his godparents have the duty of doing so. In rare cases, they may even be morally required to make great sacrifices to enable your child to reach adulthood in a Christian environment.
Because godparents undertake a great responsibility, you should choose them with care. Knowing what is expected of godparents, you can appreciate why the Church insists that they fulfill several requirements:
1. They must be at least fourteen years old. This is indeed the minimum age at which they could be expected to concern themselves effectively with your child’s spiritual welfare if it became necessary to do so.
2. They must be baptized Catholics who now practice the Faith. Obviously, persons who do not receive Penance and the Holy Eucharist as required by Church law, are not practicing Catholics. They can hardly safeguard your child’s religion when they jeopardize their own.
3. They must be free to become your child’s spiritual guardians if necessary. For this reason, priests or brothers or sisters in religious communities cannot be sponsors unless their superior gives them special permission.5
Catholic Church. “The Sacrament of Baptism.” In The Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566. ↩︎
Thomas S.J., Fr. John L. “Godparents’ Job Not Easy One.” The Catholic Transcript, Volume LXI, Number 17, 28 August 1958, August 28 1958. https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=CTR19580828-01.2.100&srpos=2. ↩︎
Springer, J., G.A. Kelly, E. Springer, and Robert Walsh. The Catholic Guide to Expectant Motherhood. Random House, 1961. ↩︎